‘I want to learn ... to read and write’

Pan­demic driv­ing a gen­er­a­tion of world’s chil­dren to find work

The Morning Call - - Nation & World - By Maria Verza, Car­los Valdez and Wil­liam Costa

JOTOLCHEN, Mex­ico — The coro­n­avirus pan­demic is threat­en­ing the fu­ture of a gen­er­a­tion of the world’s chil­dren, de­priv­ing them of school­ing and send­ing them to work. Across the de­vel­op­ing world, two decades of gains against child la­bor are erod­ing.

With class­rooms shut­tered and par­ents los­ing their jobs, chil­dren are trad­ing their ABCs for the D of drudgery: Read­ing, writ­ing and times ta­bles are giv­ing way to sweat, blis­ters and fad­ing hopes for a bet­ter life.

In­stead of go­ing to school, chil­dren in Kenya are grind­ing rocks in quar­ries. Tens of thou­sands of chil­dren in In­dia have poured into farm fields and fac­to­ries. Across Latin Amer­ica, kids are mak­ing bricks, build­ing fur­ni­ture and clear­ing brush, once af­ter-school jobs that are now full-time work.

Th­ese chil­dren and ado­les­cents are earn­ing pen­nies or at best a few dol­lars a day to help put food on the ta­ble.

“Child la­bor be­comes a sur­vival mech­a­nism for many fam­i­lies,” says Astrid Hol­lan­der, UNICEF’s head of ed­u­ca­tion in Mex­ico.

Gov­ern­ments are an­a­lyz­ing how many stu­dents have dropped out of their school sys­tems, but with school clo­sures af­fect­ing nearly 1.5 bil­lion chil­dren around the world, UNICEF es­ti­mates the num­bers could be in the mil­lions.

Ex­perts say the longer their ed­u­ca­tion is put on hold, the less likely chil­dren will re­turn to school. The ram­i­fi­ca­tions, es­pe­cially for those al­ready lag­ging, can be life­long — nar­rowed job op­por­tu­ni­ties, lower po­ten­tial earn­ings and greater like­li­hood of poverty and early preg­nancy.

“The reper­cus­sions could be felt in economies and so­ci­eties for decades to come,” Hen­ri­etta Fore, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of UNICEF, the U.N. chil­dren’s agency, warned in Au­gust. For at least 463 mil­lion chil­dren whose schools closed, there is no pos­si­bil­ity of re­mote learn­ing.

It is, she said, a “global ed­u­ca­tion emer­gency.”

In the moun­tains of Mex­ico’s Chi­a­pas state, the sus­pen­sion of school meant 11-year-old An­dres Gomez be­gan spend­ing full days swing­ing a ham­mer in­side a hand-carved mine look­ing for amber. A na­tive speaker of Tzotzil, An­dres had been learn­ing Span­ish, a skill that would open more op­por­tu­ni­ties for him.

“What I want to learn is to read and write,” he says.

His teacher, Joel Her­nan­dez, re­cently went to pick up work­books in Jotolchen that stu­dents who oth­er­wise have no ac­cess to dis­tance learn­ing were sup­posed to com­plete. Only about 20% of the stu­dents had done the work and An­dres wasn’t one of them.

“If Dad is go­ing to the fields, to the cof­fee grove, to the mine, the child is not go­ing to stay at home with noth­ing to do,” Her­nan­dez says. “For them, to sit around watch­ing tele­vi­sion, if they have it, is like wast­ing time.”

Ex­perts say in the past, most stu­dents who have missed class be­cause of crises like the Ebola epi­demic re­turned when schools re­opened. But the longer the cri­sis drags on, the less likely they will go back.

Yliana Merida, a researcher at the Au­ton­o­mous Univer­sity of Chi­a­pas, Mex­ico, said that even more than be­fore, the pan­demic has turned ed­u­ca­tion into a lux­ury.

“Many par­ents opt for ‘you’re go­ing to work to help meat home be­cause right now we re­ally need it.’ ”

In El Alto, a sub­urb perched above Bo­livia’s cap­i­tal of La Paz, five sib­lings be­tween the ages of 6 and 14 years old are bun­dled in hats and coats against the chilly moun­tain air as they and their par­ents work all in their fam­ily’s small car­pen­try workshop.

They­oungest, 6-year-old Mar­i­ana Geo­vana, would have started kinder­garten this year; in­stead, she smooths minia­ture fur­ni­ture with scraps of sand­pa­per.

Jonatan, 14, the most ex­pe­ri­enced, uses the elec­tric saw to cut lengths of wood for doll-size beds and full-size chests of draw­ers.

“I’m frus­trated not be­ing able to go to school,” he says.

The Bo­li­vian gov­ern­ment de­cided to can­cel the school year in Au­gust be­cause it said there was no way to pro­vide an eq­ui­table ed­u­ca­tion to the coun­try’s nearly 3 mil­lion stu­dents. In a coun­try where in­for­mal em­ploy­ment makes up 70% of the econ­omy, the clo­sure of schools put more kids to work.

“We have seen new chil­dren and ado­les­cents sell­ing in the street,” says Pa­tri­cia Ve­lasco, man­ager of a municipal pro­gram for at-risk peo­ple in the cap­i­tal La Paz. “They’ve been pushed to gen­er­ate in­come.”

Watch­ing Mar­i­ana, Jonatan and his other chil­dren at work — and send­ing the older kids out into the streets to sell their pieces — their fa­ther, Hec­tor Del­gado, 54, knows what is at stake. “For the stu­dents the clo­sure of the school year is a catas­tro­phe. They’re not go­ing to make up the time and I strive for them to be more than car­pen­ters.”

But Del­gado, head of the lo­cal Ar­ti­sans Coun­cil in El Alto, said the fam­ily had burned through their sav­ings and now­didn’t have money to buy lum­ber to carry on with its busi­ness.

Since the sus­pen­sion of in­per­son classes, chil­dren are work­ing many more hours than usual through­out the rus­tic brick­yards of To­bati, Paraguay.

With the help of his 10-yearold son, Hugo Godoy shov­els mounds of clay and sandy earth, pre­par­ing to make the next day’s bricks. Godoy has also been send­ing him to work at a nearby larger fac­tory where his 15-yearold son works as well since schools closed in March.

“I spoke to the owner and said that if he gave him light work — mov­ing the raw ma­te­ri­als and things like that — then I’d let him go,” Godoy said, speak­ing in his na­tive Guarani lan­guage. “There are lots of chil­dren work­ing.”

JUAN KARITA/AP

Hec­tor Del­gado’s chil­dren, wear­ing masks to curb the spread of the coro­n­avirus, work in the fam­ily’s workshop in El Alto, Bo­livia.

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